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Lake Erie runs have anglers hooked

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2004

 

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  Associated Press reporter, and novice flyfisherman Dan Nephin, gets the feel for fishing for steelhead in Twenty Mile Creek in North East, Pa., Nov. 4, 2004. With about a dozen fishable Lake Erie tributaries, the steelhead industry has quadrupled over the past 20 years to a $9.5 million-a-year business in Erie County. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Associated Press reporter, and novice flyfisherman Dan Nephin, gets the feel for fishing for steelhead in Twenty Mile Creek in North East, Pa., Nov. 4, 2004. With about a dozen fishable Lake Erie tributaries, the steelhead industry has quadrupled over the past 20 years to a $9.5 million-a-year business in Erie County.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

NORTH EAST, Pa. Steve Young loves all things fish, but he loves steelhead in particular.

So much so that he quit his job as a motorcycle salesman several years ago to guide anglers visiting Lake Erie's tributary waters during the fall and winter steelhead runs.

Consider him just one example of the $9.5 million-a-year steelhead industry in Erie County, as documented recently by a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission study. The financial impact has quadrupled in 20 years.

That's a stunning number, considering Pennsylvania only has about 60 miles of coastline on Lake Erie and about a dozen fishable tributaries. (Steelhead can be caught in the lake as well as in the tributaries.)

Alaska and Pacific Northwest rivers have long enjoyed reputations as steelhead destinations, but over the past decade, the Great Lakes' steelhead fishery is becoming better known.

"I think it ranks with any fishing place in the world," said Young, 55, of Wexford. "The advantage of the Pennsylvania streams that attract all the fishermen is that it's sight-fishing. The clarity, that's what really thrills people."

Even on a recent rainy day when the water in one tributary was up, many of the behemoths could be seen holding in pools. As big as steelhead are 2-footers are common it can take a while to train the eye to spot their camouflaged form (tip: look for movement, not an entire fish). Then, they're seemingly everywhere.

Steelhead are actually rainbow trout that spend much of their adult lives in the ocean or large lakes. They swim into freshwater to spawn but, unlike salmon, can spawn more than once before they die. Anglers pursue what many consider to be freshwater's most prized game fish with flies, bait and lures. Steelhead in the Lake Erie tributaries average about 24 inches and typically weigh 3 to 8 pounds. The state record steelhead, caught April 1, 2001, measured 36.5 inches and weighed 20 pounds, 3 ounces.

 

Guide Steve Young holds a steelhead on Nov. 4, 2004, at Twenty Mile Creek in North East, Pa. With about a dozen fishable Lake Erie tributaries, the steelhead industry has quadrupled over the past 20 years to a $9.5 million-a-year business in Erie County.

AP Photo/Dan Nephin

They make spawning runs from fall to spring. "I think people think of Thanksgiving as opening day," Young said. There are so many people on the streams, he won't take anyone out that entire week.

But Young and others lament the fishery may be getting too popular. He's strictly catch-and-release, believing the fish are resources best left for another day. Nearly 80 percent of anglers release their catch, the study found.

With the increasing number of anglers seeking steelhead come problems of access. Some landowners have posted their land against trespassing, reducing access to the waters. One landowner did so after an angler relieved himself on the property on a recent Thanksgiving Day, in view of the family as they ate, said Tom Cooper, who runs North Fork Flies, an online fly fishing shop in suburban Pittsburgh.

Gary Heubel is president of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association and owner of Poor Richard's Bait and Tackle shops in the Erie County towns of Fairview and North East. He agrees that an increasing amount of private land is getting posted.

 

Fishing guide Steve Young selects a fly from his collection to use to catch steelhead on Twenty Mile Creek in North East, Pa., Nov. 4, 2004. Alaskan and Pacific Northwestern rivers have long enjoyed reputations as steelhead destinations but over the past decade, the Great Lakes' steelhead fishery is becoming better known. With about a dozen fishable Lake Erie tributaries, the steelhead industry has quadrupled over the past 20 years to a $9.5 million-a-year business in Erie County.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

"We need to compensate the landowners in some way for all the money coming into this area," Heubel said. He favors some type of tax break for property owners who grant land easements.

Once you do find a place to put your line in, there's no guarantee of catching a steelhead. On a recent outing, Cooper failed to land a steelhead in several hours' fishing, though he did catch a large brown trout. But the catch rate on Erie tributaries is still high. The study found that more than a half-million steelhead are caught each year, with the average angler catching a steelhead about every 90 minutes.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks more than 1 million steelhead smolts annually. Local clubs plant another 115,000 steelhead smolts each year on average.

"Out West, the fish are bigger, but out there, you catch two, three fish a day and that's a good day," Heubel said. "But for sheer numbers, Pennsylvania steelhead is the best place in the world. Around here, guys that fish all the time, they'll catch, 20, 30, a day."



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